Wheels aren´t the whole show. Made in Lansing features everything from hulking stoves to fine jewelry, pocket protectors to an oyster tin. The exhibit runs from cradle to casket — literally. (There´s one of each.)
But if you´re looking for an image to bring it all together, take the basic working circle for a spin. The making of things in Lansing started with plows, carts, wheelbarrows and other wheeled things needful to farmers. Lansing’s central narrative, the rise and rise and rise of the automobile, is written in wheels to the ends of the earth. For years, the world’s biggest maker of wheels was Lansing’s Motor Wheel, which put out millions of them a year in its heyday.
The wheel is also an emblem of innovation, the thing that makes homo sapiens different from the caveman, at least in magazine cartoons. Made in Lansing features locally made products of amazing variety from the past two centuries, with an eye on the leading edge of the wheel. Historical Society President Valerie Marvin hopes it will open residents’ eyes to the breadth of local ingenuity. Making things in Lansing isn´t all about cars, she maintains, and never has been.
“People in Lansing have been innovative problem solvers over the years,” she said. “We need to take pride in that.”
A touch of defensiveness about Lansing´s reputation as a one-horseless-carriage town isn’t new.
A big source of inspiration for Made in Lansing is the grand Manufacturers Exhibition held in front of the Capitol in 1902. A contemporary article in the Lansing Journal lauded “the remarkable extent and diversity of Lansing’s industries.” This early version of Made in Lansing gathered products from the Lansing Wheelbarrow Works, the Queen Bee Cigar Co. and the Hya-Hya Elixir Remedy Co., along with Oldsmobile and other auto-related businesses. Made in Lansing does much the same thing, only with 21st-century wrinkles: A computer from ACD.net and a food safety testing kit from the high-tech Neogen Corp. are harbingers of the newest wave of Lansing industry. The exhibit also includes work by local artists and artisans.
Made in Lansing is the most ambitious yet in a series of temporary exhibits created by the historical society, following Lansing Votes earlier this year, which revolved around Lansing’s political history, and 2013’s Lansing Eats, which focused on historic restaurants. Since the society doesn’t have its own museum, it brings these “pop-up” exhibits to public spaces around the city.
The exhibit debuts just in time for Be a Tourist in Your Own Town on Saturday, which allows visitors to enjoy more than 70 local attractions and events for the cost of a $1 passport. City Hall will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day so people can view Made in Lansing.
Educational programs related to the theme will be held in the summer and fall.
Wheels for use
Made in Lansing puts the wheel before the cart, the cart before the horse and all of them before the horseless carriage. The market for farm implements boomed after the Civil War, just when Lansing was beginning to stir from the swamps of central Michigan. Millions of acres went under the plow, not just in the newly settled American West and Midwest, but in Canada, Australia, Russia and Brazil.
Lansing is Exhibit A of the push pull of American life after the Civil War: The farm built the city and the city built the farm. By 1890, Lansing was a world leader in making plows and other farm implements. Railroads and plank roads converged on the newly chosen capital like so many spokes. There were plenty of hardwood trees from which to make things and local entrepreneurs knew what farmers needed.
The city’s biggest company in the pre-auto days, the Bement Co., started making farm tools in the 1860s. Bement quickly became the dominant player in town when it came to making things.
Bement turned out thousands of plows, harrows, kettles, cultivators, seeders and its ultimate specialty, heating stoves. By 1880, the firm employed over 700 people — by far the most of any in Lansing — and did its share of innovating. The Palace stove heated evenly and conserved fuel. A local press report deemed it was “as far ahead of the stoves of 50 years ago as the railroad is ahead of the steam coach.” According to the ballyhoo on an advertising wagon the roamed the streets of Lansing, Bement stoves were sold in 43 states and territories of the U.S. and exported to every continent but Antarctica, including “the Islands of the Sea.”
They weren´t lightweight, either. The Bement stove in the Made in Lansing exhibit isn’t a Palace, but it’s the biggest one the Historic Society team could haul in without a derrick.
Wheels made a hard life easier on the farm. Thousands of elm logs floated down the Grand River to feed one of Lansing’s biggest manufacturing beasts, the Lansing Wheelbarrow Co., started in 1881 by Arthur Courtland Stebbins and Edward Sparrow. (Some of the logs got away and were turned into furniture made down the river in Grand Rapids.) It took days for a blacksmith to turn out a wheelbarrow, but by 1890, the Lansing company was turning out 10,000 wheelbarrows a year, a revolution that would foreshadow the ever-upscaling automobile makers waiting in the wings. Another big player with wheels, Lansing Wagon Works, was turning out 5,000 wagons and carriages a year. They also made Reynolds’ Improved Warehouse Trucks, Herbert´s Patent Horse Pokes and, of course, rubber-tired wheels. Successor companies would build carts strong enough to hold automobile engine blocks on the shop floors of Olds Motor Works.
Lansing inventors even found a way to put a wheel on your head. An unusual entry in the pre-automobile era of Made in Lansing is Hugh Lyons & Co., established in 1888 and self-billed as “the world’s largest makers” of store fixtures, retail display items and wax figures. Among its odder products was the patented Hat Conformator, which looked like a spare part from an electric chair but was designed for a benign purpose: To shape a new hat to the wearer´s head, “making a new hat feel as comfortable as the old one.”
Hugh Lyons went on to bigger things, as an initial investor of the REO Motor Co. and, later, as a mayor of Lansing. The Lyons Co. made auto bodies for the REO Motor Car Co. until REO started making its own bodies in the 1930s.
As the city grew, more things of more kinds were made by more entrepreneurs. An 1872 item in the Lansing Republican cut to the heart of the city’s growth, announcing that a local furniture maker D.W. Buck intended to “make a specialty of cradles, baby jumpers and children’s carriages which are more in demand in Lansing than burial-cases and hearses.” (Buck also ran an undertaking business.)
Those babies cried and lo, the Michigan Condensed Milk Co. put out a million cans of condensed milk from its Lansing factory by 1877.
Making things in Lansing really took off after 1878, when the Capitol was completed.
With the stately dome in place, people and businesses thronged to the city, swelling the population to 8,000 by the early 1880s. The figure would double at the dawn of the 20th century.
As the babies needed milk, the men needed cigars, and Lansing supplied them by the bundle. Ornate cigar boxes on display at the Made in Lansing exhibit tell the story.
In the late 19th century, Lansing had at least 10 cigar makers and two cigar box makers, from the Queen Bee Cigar Co., a small six-man shop at 223 S. Washington Ave., to the three-story Hammell Cigar Co. at 704 E. Kalamazoo St., with 75 workers rolling hundreds of stogies day and night. These were quiet operations that emitted smoke only after the product was in use. Cigar makers were one of the few shops where workers unionized in those early years.
To go with all those cigars, the Lansing Brewing Co., a Gothic castle of a factory at 1301-1309 Turner St., brewed up to 15,000 barrels a year beginning in 1898. A 1906 ad proclaimed the company’s beer “Bottled for Family Use,” to avoid temperance ladies’ ire. (There were a lot of working men in the area, and the women wanted them to come home.) Amber Cream was a popular brand, along with Hoffbrau, Bohemian and Lager. Serving trays like the one at the Made In Lansing exhibit tapped into the increasing value of promotion.
Even the mills of the sleepy riverside town were scaling to industrial size. By 1880, the Thoman mill at the corner of Ottawa Street and Grand Avenue was grinding out 100 barrels of flour a day, blocks away from the Grand River, powered by a 75-horsepower steam engine. Engineering students from Michigan Agricultural College came to study the gasolinepowered behemoth. Bleached flour branded with Southern-belle names like Calla Lily and Moss Rose made its way all over the country, especially the South, and even to Europe. For years, the flour was de-bugged with tear gas.
Elixirs, an exalted name for patent medicines of dubious origin and value, are well represented in the Made in Lansing exhibit, and with good reason. The Lansing City Directories from 1873 through 1920 list over 86 different druggists, chemists and medicine manufacturers. Hucksters crisscrossed the city with bottles of Hya-Hya, “Newbro´s Herpicide Liquid Hair Restorer” and Bon Kure, represented with a suspicious looking bottle at the exhibit.
By 1890, still pre-automobile, Lansing was already a factory town, anchored by a cheek-by-jowl grid of manufacturers clustered on the Grand River.
Among them was the River Street shop of Pliny F. Olds and Sons, makers of gas engines, a wobbly firm rescued by a loan of $1,500 from Professor Robert Kedzie of Michigan Agricultural College. The product was a Lansing specialty: A gasoline-powered steam engine, not an internal combustion engine.
Two blocks upstream from the Olds works, Clark and Co. was widening its operations from farm wagons to upscale carriages like the No. 1 Extension Phaeton, with steel axles and tires, seats of fine woven cloth and leather on the top, fenders and dash. The combination of Olds’ engine shop and Clark’s carriage works would prove more fateful to the city’s future — and the world’s — than Laurel running into Hardy, but more about that later.
To fill out the downtown grid of industrial bustle, the Lansing Lumber Co. sprawled two blocks north of Clark (where the Lansing City Market now sits); Bement took up two city blocks, from Shiawassee to Ottawa. As if there weren’t enough wheels rolling around town, two more wagon companies, the Bush Road Cart Co. and Lansing Wagon Works, jostled each other north of the Bement plant.
And then the big wheel rolled along. When Pliny Olds’ son, Ranson Eli Olds, started tinkering with engines and carriages, Lansing was home to the world’s largest wheel maker: The W. K. Prudden Co., which eventually became a globe-spanning giant, the Motor Wheel Corp.
“Prudden actually supplied the first wheels to the 1897 Oldsmobile,” said Dave Pfaff, historian at the R. E. Olds Transportation Museum, one of the hosts of the Made in Lansing exhibit. The company had developed a hightech wheel for racing sulkies (lightweight two-wheeled carts used in harness racing) and adapted its technology for the up-and-coming auto industry, Pfaff explained.
Two massive steel-rimmed wheels made by Prudden for a WWI artillery cannon will appear in the exhibit, compliments of developer Harry Hepler, who converted the former Prudden factory at the corner of Saginaw and Larch streets into modernistic loft apartments.
Wheels gone mad
It´s been said that the most important thing that ever happened in Lansing happened in Detroit — a fire that gutted the Olds Motor Works on the Detroit River near Jefferson Avenue.
After cobbling together a handful of early automobiles and humping them over the potholed streets of Lansing, Olds opted to scale up his operation in Detroit, dazzled by the town’s big Capitol, paved roads and Great Lakes shipping access. When the Detroit works burned, Lansing businessmen lured him back home with a prime plot of land on the Grand River, formerly home to the Michigan State Fair.
The famous Curved Dash Olds went quickly into production and the protagonist of Lansing’s manufacturing saga firmly took center stage. In 1902, the Grand River plant turned out 2,000 units of the Curved Dash Olds, one of them restored and parked proudly at the Made in Lansing exhibit. In 1905, the year Olds left the company, 5,000 rolled out the doors.
The innovations of Olds Motor Works went beyond mechanics and design to include promotion. Pretty women appeared at the wheel in Olds ads, giving the lie to the notion that automobiles were only for greasy denizens of Gasoline Alley. Horses were dissed as hay-guzzling, freely defecating expense accounts with a propensity to bite. There were highly publicized trips like Roy Chapin’s Detroit-to-New-York ride in a one-cylinder Curved Dash Olds in 1901, a stunt that drummed up 1,000 orders. Half a century later, Olds would sex up its ads with words like “Futuramic” that meant absolutely nothing but made consumers drool. The auto industry goosed the advertising business, as it did so many others, into a state of constant reinvention.
With stunning quickness, Lansing became home to two automotive giants. In 1904, after splitting with his investors in the Olds Motor Car Co. over control and direction of the company, Olds founded a second automotive giant, REO Motor Car Co., on a 72-acre factory complex south of downtown. Taking advantage of Lansing’s pool of skilled workers and ready industrial base, REO started to roll out its flagship touring car with lightning speed, boosting production from 804 in 1905 to 2,448 in 1906. The Art Deco aura of the REO passenger car reached a zenith in the early 1930s, with the Flying Cloud and the glorious but super-expensive Royale, but the Great Depression wiped out all small auto manufacturers for good. REO specialized in buses and heavyduty trucks until its demise in 1975.
REO made a bid for the ultimate Made in Lansing brand — after all, it never defected to Detroit — but Olds’ first company and its huge successor took that laurel in the end.
After losing its founder, Olds Motor Works foundered for a few years, but rallied when it was sold to Billy Durant and his General Motors Co. in 1908. Durant’s new Model 20 sold by the thousands. Employment at the Grand River plant doubled to more than 1,000. The Oldsmobile had truly embarked on its centuryplus Lansing roll. By the 1970s, the sales would top 1 million.
But the seesaw competition between Olds Motor Works and REO was fun for a while. When President Theodore Roosevelt came to Lansing in 1907 to take part in the 50th anniversary of Michigan Agricultural College, Olds drove the president from Lansing to East Lansing in a REO and an Oldsmobile brought him back.
Other auto manufacturers became footnotes to history. Olds once claimed there were 1,000 failed automakers by 1945, and a few of them get a nod at the Made in Lansing exhibit.
Frank G. Clark, who had built the body for Olds’ 1896 horseless carriage, made his own bid as an automaker. The Clarkmobile, billed as “a $2,000 automobile at a $750 price,” stopped production at about 1,000 vehicles.
The Bates Automobile Co. (“Buy a Bates and Keep Your Dates”) started in 1903 with single-cylinder runabouts, moving up to two-seaters and four-seaters that really did cost $2,000. Bates only produced about 25 cars and folded in 1905.
Lansing, center of auto manufacturing, was taking precedence over Lansing, center of government. You could read the score on the Queen Bee cigar box. The “City Hall” cost 5 cents, but the “Auto City” cost 10 cents.
Wheels within wheels
To the white-collar cubicle rat of today, early 20th century Lansing seemed to be a maker of dangerous things with burrs and edges — things that mysteriously meshed with other things inside of hot, greasy, even-bigger things.
But Lansing ingenuity came in many forms, not all of them auto-centric. The Lansing Folding Seat and Table Co., listed in a 1904 directory with nine employees, boasted in an ad that its tables could hold three quarters of a ton of boulders (or anything else, but boulders really made the table look tough.) The ties between farm and industry were still strong, especially in firms like the Maud S Windmill & Pump Co., represented in the Made in Lansing exhibit by a hand water pump. The company was named after a horse owned by New York tycoon William H. Vanderbilt, Maud S. “If you want the best goods at fair prices, get the Maud S,” went the company’s motto. “If you want cheap goods, look elsewhere; we do not make them.”
Among the companies that moved to Lansing from other cities in those boom years were two more cigar producers, Detroit’s Gusting A. Mops & Co. and Barrette & Scully. The Michigan Wood Work Co. and the Hales enameling plant moved into town. The Cronk Brothers gum factory moved in from Dowagiac. As early as 1906, the Lansing Republican announced “there is not a vacant factory in all of Lansing.”
In a lesser-known spinoff from the auto industry, Lansing became a world hub for another ubiquitous, wheeled staple of 20th century American life — the lawn mower.
The lawn mower goes back to a patent secured by R.E. Olds (who else?) in 1916 for his Ideal Engine Co., a side venture he started in 1906. The roller pushed the mower forward as it mowed, powered by an Ideal engine. The mower was such a hit the company was renamed Ideal Power Lawn Mower Co. in 1922.
The R. E. Olds Transportation Museum will house a portion of the Made in Lansing exhibit, highlighting unusual products made by Lansing’s auto companies, from munitions and military vehicles used in WWII to lawnmowers during the postwar period.
“The lawnmower business was actually very successful,” said Pfaff.
At its peak, REO was the biggest maker of power mowers in the world. The REO engine, with its unique slant head cylinder and camshaft drive, was adapted to snow blowers and a nifty kit for converting a rowboat to an inboard craft, called the Trollabout.
REO´s mower division was sold to Motor Wheel, then to Wheel Horse, until the brand was discontinued in the late 1960s.
In the middle of the 20th century, it could be argued that the era of making things in Lansing was at its peak.
Oldsmobile build over 366,000 cars in 1959, Fisher Body assembled over 233,000 bodies and Motor Wheel made almost 5 million auto wheels.
With those kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder that the city’s pride was still mixed with a touch of defensiveness about the Auto City label. A commemorative issue of the Lansing State Journal published in 1955 announced “during the 1940s, Lansing won back more of the diversification so coveted in early years,” thanks in large part to the growing plastics industry. But in 1960, it was still estimated that one in four mid-Michigan workers owed their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, to the auto industry.
In 1955, over 200 Lansing manufacturers employed more than 32,000 workers, and not all of them were beholden to the wheel.
Lansing was home to many companies with national or worldwide reach: The Paul Henry Co. (toys), Farm Bureau Services Inc. (fertilizer) and Ranaud Plastics Inc. (industrial tools and plastics). But many industries remained completely or partially dependent on the auto industry. Even one of Lansing´s plastics manufacturers, Kish Industries’ Stephen Kish, took an ill-fated plunge into auto manufacturing, designing a plastic, battery-powered car called the Nu-Klea that was never produced.
Outside the big plants like Fisher Body and Motor Wheel, light industry, mostly auto-related, ruled the city. Lansing shook to the 24-hour pounding of one of the world’s biggest concentrations of drop forge plants, including Atlas, Lansing, Federal, Lindell and Melling.
But the Made in Lansing exhibit also shows that the harder people worked, the thirstier they got and the more they needed diversion.
A bottle and crate of Hi-Klas soda at the Made in Lansing exhibit marks the beginnings of the Canada Dry Bottling Co. of Lansing, a fourth-generation family-owned business that’s still in town. In its prime, Hi-Klas was the top selling soft drink across five Michigan counties, according to Larry Shanker, who ran the business in the 1980s and whose grandfather, Louis, started the company in 1933. (Shanker’s son, Randy Shanker, runs the company now.) Hi- Klas made and bottled a dozen flavors of soda from a plant on Cedar Street near Tisdale Avenue. Many Lansing kids got their first taste of Hi-Klas when a local entertainer from WJIM-TV, Deputy Dave, showed up at a birthday party with his TV puppets and a crate of soda from the show’s sponsor. The bottling plant and Hi-Klas brand went under in 1983, but Canada Dry of Lansing still distributes beverages to nine mid- Michigan counties.
Made in Lansing is first and fore most a display of physical things, but the exhibit also highlights the workers who created them. The United Auto Workers coat of Cyril McGuire, the only African-American to serve as president of U.A.W. Local 652, is one of the items on display. “That was huge,” said historical society board member Jesse Lasorda, noting that the local boasted some 18,000 members in the 1970s when McGuire led it.
Though some of the exhibit items come from the historical society’s growing collection, many are on loan from local individuals — including the exhibit organizers themselves, all of whom are volunteers.
Anne Wilson, a board member, contributed an ID badge worn by her grandfather, Lester Wilson, during his work at Atlas Drop Forge from 1942-‘70. The job had its perils: Besides enduring the intense heat of red-hot metal parts, he lost part of a thumb in a machine.
There were times toward the end of the 20th century when it felt as if the wheels were coming off in Lansing, at least when it came to making things. The numbers were pointing upward as late as 1977, when Oldsmobile sold 1 million cars, becoming the third automaker to do so. When the Lansing Cutlass Assembly Plant opened in 1978, Oldsmobile was running the largest passenger car assembly complex in North America.
But energy crunches, shifts in the global economy and changing tastes made those hulking Olds 88s and 98s look more and more like Cretaceous-era dinosaurs. It wasn’t just an Oldsmobile problem, but the venerable brand is what mattered most to many people in Lansing.
By 2004, the brand had run its course. GM was ready to pull out of city. Nothing was left of the REO plant but weeds and asphalt since the giant company went under in 1975. Motor Wheel was a vast, empty hulk. National and global manufacturers began to compete locally made products, just as mega-markets and restaurants pushed mom-and-pop shops out of business. Lansing was still the seat of the state government, with the giant land grant university Michigan State University (the renamed Michigan Agricultural College) next door, but the transition from the manufacturing to a service economy promised major trauma.
The answer to this existential question, as it happened, was “all of the above.” Several Made in Lansing exhibits show how the city made it through the bottleneck into the 21st century.
Some makers just kept making, generation after generation. A pyramid of paint cans at the Made in Lansing exhibit from O’Leary Paint Co. testifies to the staying power of a regional paint manufacturer based in Lansing since 1891. (The company even managed to rebrand itself when its original name, the Silver Lead Paint Co., became synonymous with poison.) By 1990, O’Leary paint was selling in 11 stores in Michigan and Indiana and the company became one of the first manufacturers to move its operations into the void left by the REO plant south of downtown.
Another manufacturer that stuck it out through many turns of the wheel of fortune is the Paramount Coffee Co., started by three entrepreneurs from Chicago in 1935. In 1944, the company settled into a new roastery and distribution center at 130 N. Larch St., where it’s still housed. Paramount survived the rise of fast foods, a phase of urban decline, and two or three economic downturns to grow into a regional supplier of java, and the source of the most savory air emissions of any downtown industry.
Another display at the Made in Lansing exhibit gives a nod to Biggby Coffee, the burgeoning chain that got its start in East Lansing in 1995 and grew to have over 200 stores in eight states.
Where the Industrial & blurs into the Information Age, the “things” part of “making things” gets a little abstract. An early entry in the tech sector, ACD.net, is represented in the Made in Lansing exhibit by a boxy, beige computer dating from 1992. The ACD Optima system (4 megabytes of memory, expandable to 32) cost over $2,000, but enterprising brothers Kevin and Steve Scheon threw in the modem for free. (They knew you’d be back.) The Schoens have grown ACD.net into one of the states biggest Internet service providers, operating from a huge new datacenter in north Lansing.
The thing-ness of Made in Lansing makes it hard to represent some of the sectors that anchor the city’s growth. Is insurance a thing? Who can say — it doesn´t leave an empty bottle after you use it. There are no policies under glass at the Made in Lansing exhibit, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the dramatic rise in insurance sector in Lansing in recent years, from Auto-Owners to the Accident Fund to Blue Cross Blue Shield, all of whom have made massive commitments to operating within the city. The shift to a service economy filled the sails of finance and insurance sectors in Lansing, filling millions of square feet of office space, but it’s hard to represent them in a museum exhibit.
However, the newest revolution in Lansing’s wheel of manufacturing innovation is biotech, and that’s tangible enough for Made in Lansing. A food safety test kit at the exhibit represents Neogen, started in 1982 by James Herbert with $75,000, now with nearly half a million square feet of operations in Lansing, all of it in rehabbed neighborhood buildings at least 50 years old. Operating from schools, homes and offices in east side neighborhoods, Neogen develops biotech products that are used around the world.
To a Lansing citizen from the 1950s, the biotech revolution might sound like a science fiction scenario: A wave of firms with mysterious names like Neogen, Niowave and Emergent Biosolutions infiltrate the city, inhabiting the remnants of a de-populated, largely defactoried urban grid.
But the early 21st century fulfilled the hopes of Lansing planners as far back as the 1980s, when an economic history of Lansing called “Capital, Campus and Cars” called for the “Lansing of tomor row” to move beyond those three pillars and attract “high technology and biomedical companies.”
Besides Neogen, Lansing is home to Niowave, a maker of superconducting electron accelerators used in health care, and Emergent Biosolutions, manufactures of the anthrax vaccine.
And one more thing: The wheels kept rolling after all.
In a replay of events a century past, when Lansing leaders lured R.E. Olds back to Lansing after his Detroit motor works burned down, a regional coalition of public and private interests moved mountains of incentives to keep technology thriving in Lansing.
The city ended up with two new GM plants, the Grand River Assembly and Delta Township Assembly plants, both of which weathered GM’s subsequent bankruptcy and a killer national recession to produce the Cadillac CTS and its smaller sibling, the Cadillac ATS. Both have rolled up Car of the Year honors and brought automotive pride back to the city.
To read the trades, you´d think GM was re-fighting WWII. “Cadillac charges head-on at the Germans,” read a headline in Car and Driver. But this was a different kind of war. The ATS, a compact performance model meant to go head to head with the BMW 3 Series, began assembling July 26, 2012, and went on sale that year. It was a hit domestically and began selling in China last year.
Instead of a brief coda to the glory days of Oldsmobile, the new phase of auto-making, with its high-tech plants and growing sales, is starting to look like a second chapter. In December 2012, GM announced a newly redesigned Camaro will begin production at Lansing’s Grand River Assembly Plant, supplanting the model built in Ontario.
The jet packs and maglevs we were promised in 1959 are still nowhere in sight. Looks like we´re stuck with wheels for a while yet.
One more revolution
The new diversified economy doesn´t come without a price. Look over Lansing’s daily obituaries this week, or any week, and the same phrases toll, like bells at the funeral of a bygone era: “Worked at Motor Wheel 50 years”; “tradesman at Fisher Body 56 years”; “GM employee all his life.”
In the new marketplace, wages are stagnant, unions are on the ropes, and too few people are reaping too much of the bounty from the things others make. Making things is simply not as secure a vocation as it was in the boom years of the 20th century.
But the city isn’t tethered to one industry anymore. No product dominates Lansing as the Oldsmobile did, nor is one ever likely to. Ever since that 1902 manufacturers’ exhibition, Lansing has been sensitive about being called a one-industry town. The Made in Lansing exhibit, like its predecessor, takes pains to unpack that diversity while acknowledging the four-wheeled gorilla in the room.
That diversity promises to unpack more fully in another hundred years. The next Made in Lansing exhibit will probably fit inside a rubbery suction cup you can pop over your eye, invented by some latter-day R.E. Olds. Instead of wheelbarrows and runabouts, images of tiny biomedical tinkerings and micro-forged computer innovations will drift through your brain.
The 2114 exhibit will probably have a different spin on the things that were made in Lansing at the dawn of the 21st century. This time around, the voice in your head (even odds it’ll be Chad Badgero’s) might say it was the automobile that added diversity to the other things made in Lansing — the software pack ages, biotech wizardry and other quasiintangible goods — that took Lansing’s makers into the future. How’s that for a turn of the wheel?
From research labs to factory floors to that guy who whittles walking sticks on the bench near the Lansing River Walk, things of all kinds will continue to be made in Lansing, at least for the foreseeable future. Including cars.
In ATS speak, that´s called “all wheel drive.”
Rachel E. Cabose contributed to this story.